highest level

U.S. middle-class incomes reached highest-ever level in 2016, Census Bureau says

The incomes of middle-class Americans rose last year to the highest level ever recorded by the Census Bureau, as poverty declined and the scars of the past decade’s Great Recession seemed to finally fade.

Median household income rose to $59,039 in 2016, a 3.2 percent increase from the previous year and the second consecutive year of healthy gains, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday. The nation’s poverty rate fell to 12.7 percent, returning nearly to what it was in 2007 before a financial crisis and deep recession walloped workers in ways that were still felt years later.

The new data, along with another census report showing the rate of Americans lacking health insurance to be at its lowest ever last year, suggest that Americans were actually in a position of increasing financial strength as President Trump, who tapped into anger about the economy, took office this year.

Yet the census report also points to the sources of deeper anxieties among American workers and underscores threats to continued economic progress.

Middle-class households are only now seeing their income eclipse 1999 levels.

Inequality remains high, with the top fifth of earners taking home more than half of all overall income, a record. And yawning racial disparities remain, with the median African American household earning only $39,490, compared with more than $65,000 for whites and over $81,000 for Asians.

Economists and policy experts wonder whether the gains will continue. The median income had surged since 2014 because millions more Americans found full-time jobs, but there is little evidence that employers are rushing to offer raises to those who already are employed. Without more wage gains, momentum could slow.

Meanwhile, the rate of people without health insurance declined only slightly last year, to 8.8 percent, the Census Bureau said.

The Trump administration is widely expected to cut back on programs that promote enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, meaning that the ranks of the 28.1 million uninsured Americans might grow.

“There’s a danger that this is as good as it gets,” said Peter Atwater, president of Financial Insyghts. “We are already at a 16-year low in unemployment. The likelihood of significant job growth from here is limited.”

Trump promised that a combination of tax cuts, infrastructure investment packages, renegotiated trade deals and the repeal of Obama administration regulations would deliver a burst of job creation and attendant economic growth.

So far, no such boom can be found.

In Trump’s first seven months, the U.S. economy has added about 25,000 fewer jobs per month than it did during the last seven months of Barack Obama’s presidency. In a more positive sign, the gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 3 percent in the second quarter of 2017, according to a federal report issued in late August.

Much of Trump’s agenda remains pending, however, either awaiting action by his administration or bogged down in Congress. And while most economists think it is too early in Trump’s term for his administration to have a measurable effect on the economy, there are real doubts about whether he will be able to enact his agenda, particularly after his health-care effort died in the Senate. Both his tax reform and infrastructure efforts face significant hurdles in Congress.

“Where is the extra progress going to come from? You have growing uncertainty that Washington will be able to create any sort of tax relief or infrastructure plan,” Atwater said.

For now, though, the economy is returning to pre-recession levels, as indicated by several benchmarks. The national unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in August, just about the same as pre-recession levels. And in July, U.S. employers had generated enough jobs to restore national employment to where it stood before the recession started in 2007, even after accounting for population growth in the intervening decade.

The household earnings are welcome news for the middle class, which, after leaps forward in the 1990s, struggled amid the slow overall growth of the early 2000s and was devastated by the recession.

The income increase extended to almost every demographic group, Census Bureau officials said. The figure the agency reported Tuesday was the highest on record. The agency reports that in 1999, median household income, adjusted for inflation, was $58,655. Agency officials cautioned that the bureau changed its methodology in 2014, complicating an exact historical comparison.

Julian West, of Phoenix, is one of the many Americans whose lives improved dramatically last year.

For much of the recovery, he could find only “dead-end” minimum-wage jobs at carwashes and discount stores.

“I was really struggling,” said West, 44, who was forced to move back in with his parents.

In 2016, he went to a temp agency in Phoenix and landed a job that paid $18 an hour. It did not last, but the recruiter called again and moved him to the job he has now at BB&T Bank monitoring car-loan payments and repossessions. The job pays $16 an hour, with ample opportunity for overtime pay, he said.

“I’m slowly saving and paying off bills,” West told The Washington Post. He recently moved into a small studio apartment, now that he’s earning $35,000 a year. “I’ll be middle class again if I keep my spending to bare bones.”

West credits Obama with bringing the economy back. He did not vote for Trump, but he hopes someone with the business experience of the president can help the working poor.

Many Americans are optimistic, as West is, that their fortunes will continue to improve. A Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 64 percent of Americans think their “standard of living” is improving, the highest percentage since the financial crisis, while only 19 percent feel their standard of living is declining.

“Today’s census report is unambiguously good news: on income, on poverty and on health insurance,” said Bob Greenstein, the founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “The goal should be to continue this progress.”


Liberman: Settlement building at highest level since 1992

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman boasted Sunday that West Bank settlement building numbers were the highest they have been since in over 20 years, and warned that clamoring for more construction could bring the whole enterprise tumbling down.

Responding to criticism from settler leaders over what they believe to be an insufficient amount of construction in the West Bank, Liberman warned that the rate of building was as high as it could possibly go.

“Anyone who claims that it was possible to approve more construction in the settlements is not just trying to stretch the rope but to tear it completely, thereby endangering the entire settlement enterprise,” the defense minister said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“There was and will not be a government that will take better care of the Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria,” Liberman added, using the biblical term for the West Bank. He said settlement building numbers for the first half of 2017 were the highest they have been since 1992.

Liberman, who is required to authorize each approval by the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee, said 3,651 housing units were greenlighted last week and a total of 8,345 units have been okayed since the beginning of the calendar year, terming the figures “the maximum.”

The figures were similar to those published by settlement watchdog Peace Now last week.

Counting plans and tenders, Peace Now said 7,721 units had been advanced this year, almost triple the number for all of 2016, which amounted to 2,699.

Peace Now could not immediately say whether it agreed that this year’s figures were the highest since 1992, which is before settlement construction slowed as a result of the Oslo accords.

Last week, settler leaders blasted as unsatisfactory the number of construction projects advanced by the subcommittee.

Settler leaders pose for a photo outside the Prime Minister's Office following their meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu on June 7, 2017. From R-L, Gush Etzion Regional Council Chairman Shlomo Ne'eman, Ma'ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kasriel, Beit El Local Council Chairman Shai Alon, Yesha Council Chairman Avi Roeh, Karnei Shomron mayor Yigal Lahav, Yesha Council Director General Shiloh Adler, Elkana Mayor Asaf Mintzer, and Kiryat Arba Local Council Head Malachi Levinger. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The uproar led to a meeting on Thursdaybetween Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the heads of various West Bank regional councils to discuss ways to further advance settlement building.

While the settler leaders left the meeting speaking of a positive atmosphere, they were unable to name any concrete gains.

Samaria Regional Council Head Yossi Dagan dismissed Liberman’s numbers on Sunday, saying they had been mistallied. “I have great respect for the defense minister, but his numbers are unfortunately incorrect,” he said.

Dagan claimed that in order for Liberman to arrive at his figure of 8,345, the defense minister double-counted many of the housing units. “The actual number is less than 2,000, in comparison to the 20,000 units that the cabinet approved for Arab residents living in Area C of Judea and Samaria,” he said, the part of the West Bank that is under Israeli administrative and military control. He accused the government of having a de facto settlement freeze.

Samaria regional council chairman Yossi Dagan attends the 14th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among the plansadvanced by the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee last week were 102 housing units for the new settlement of Amichai built for evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost.

An Israeli government-sanctioned settlement would be the first official new settlement in a quarter of a century.

Also approved by the subcommittee were 839 and 603 housing units for the Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim settlements respectively.

Construction in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the city of Hebron, on April 2, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

In addition, the Defense Ministry body approved 255 housing units in the Kerem Re’im outpost near the settlement of Talmon, west of Ramallah, retroactively legalizing an illegal outpost.

“The Defense Ministry approved the planning of Kerem Re’im as a ‘neighborhood’ of Talmon when the two are considerably far away from one another,” Lior Amichai of the Peace Now settlement watchdog pointed out. “This goes against thegovernment’s agreement not to build outside of existing neighborhoods.”

American respect for police reaches highest level in 50 years (GOOD!!!!)



It is a time of intense scrutiny for American police officers, an era that FBI Director James Comey recently called “uniquely difficult” during a speech to police chiefs. Many people in and around law enforcement would agree with his assessment.

Police officers, retired and current, as well as their relatives, have said since last year they feel that officers are disparaged, targeted and vilified amid years of protests over how authorities use deadly force.

Yet despite all of this, if you ask Americans how they feel about their local police, more people say they have respect for them than in almost half a century.

A new Gallup poll released this week found that a little more than three in four Americans (76 percent) reported having “a great deal” of respect for the police who patrol their communities, a significant uptick over last year and the highest share reported to Gallup since 1967.

This poll followed on the heels of a Pew Research Center survey last month that delved more into how Americans view law enforcement and found sharp divisions between black and white Americans over the ways they viewed the protests that have erupted since 2014 in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and, most recently, Charlotte, N.C. And that poll suggested an American public that respected law enforcement while also believing high-profile fatal encounters involving officers are indicative of a broader problem.

These surveys were taken after sometimes violent protests erupted in Charlotte, when a police officer shot a man there, prompting the most heated flashpoint in the debate over policing since a violent stretch in July that saw multiple shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas. Police fatally shot men during encounters in Baton Rouge and outside Minneapolis on successive days, followed quickly by a gunman killing five officers in Dallas and days later, another attacker killing three Baton Rouge officers.

After Baton Rouge, a weary fear had settled in among law enforcement. The number of law enforcement officers fatally shot by suspects declined last year, the FBI said last week, but this year’s toll has already surpassed all of last year. This debate repeatedly spilled over into the presidential campaign, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton speaking about the importance of restoring trust between communities and law enforcement, and Donald Trump, her Republican opponent, decrying how police officers are viewed.

Most people, though, say they do have respect for the police, even as they acknowledge more complex views about the nature of law enforcement today. The earlier Pew poll found that big majorities of Americans approved of the jobs their local police departments were doing, with 72 percent telling Pew they thought local police were doing an excellent or good job protecting them from crime. (Yes, despite the fact that violent crime went up last year — because even with that spike, crime remains at historically low levels and an overwhelming majority of Americans say they had no personal experience with violent crime last year.)

That poll shed more light on how Americans had a more nuanced view of law enforcement, one that balanced a feeling of respect and appreciation for the job done by police with a belief that there are broader issues between police and communities of color.

On this issue, as with many others relating to law enforcement, a wide gulf remained between the viewpoints of white and black Americans. Overall, 60 percent of people told Pew that cases involving black people killed by police officers were signs of a broader problem rather than isolated incidents. More than half of white people felt this way, compared with 66 percent of Hispanics and 79 percent of black people. There were also big gaps between how black and white people feel about the way police use force, treat different racial groups and respond to misconduct by police.

The share of Americans who told Gallup they have “a great deal” of respect for the police in their areas has only increased in the two years since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged nationwide.

In October 2014, two months after the Ferguson protests began in Missouri, 61 percent of Americans said they had this amount of respect for police. That figure inched up to 64 percent in October 2015 and then spiked to 76 percent this month. According to the poll taken earlier this month, Gallup found an increase in respect for local police among all of the groups they broke down, regardless of racial demographic, political leaning, age group or whether people lived in big cities, suburbs or rural areas.

One of the biggest increases Gallup reported was among the youngest group they surveyed, people between the ages of 18 and 34. Nearly 70 percent of people in that group said they had a great deal of respect for police, up 19 points from a year earlier. The views of people in this age range are an area of concern for law enforcement, Comey said during his remarks in San Diego, because he worried that “quality young people” may opt away from pursuing careers in law enforcement.

“We need to show people the true heart of law enforcement,” he said, saying that this would “ensure that other great men and women follow into this frustrating, exhausting, dangerous, and thoroughly wonderful career.”

U.S. Building Permits Soared to Their Highest Level in Nearly Eight Years


Through all its ups and downs, the U.S. homebuilding industry is making slow progress.

While housing starts declined 11.1 percent in May to a 1.04 million annualized rate, it followed a revised 1.17 million pace the prior month to cap the best back-to-back readings since late 2007, Commerce Department data showed Tuesday in Washington. Permits for future projects climbed to the highest level in almost eight years.

The stop-and-go nature of the rebound, which has been exacerbated by the inclement weather that brought construction to a near standstill at the start of the year, masks a steady recovery in the industry at the center of the past recession. While residential real estate has yet to fulfill its typical role as a pillar of this economic expansion, gains in hiring and bigger paychecks are brightening Americans’ moods and could lift home purchases in the second half of 2015.

“A big decline was almost inevitable after such a surge in April,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York, whose forecast for 1.05 million starts was among the closest in a Bloomberg survey. “With the labor market continuing to improve and unemployment coming down, overall conditions for housing should remain pretty favorable.”

The 11.1 percent drop in housing starts last month followed a 22.1 percent surge in April that was the biggest since January 1990 as the industry recovered from the bitter winter weather.

Bloomberg Survey

The reading fell short of the median forecast of 81 economists surveyed by Bloomberg, which projected 1.09 million. Estimates ranged from 1.02 million to 1.16 million.

Stocks fluctuated, after two days of declines, as investors assessed the chances for an agreement between Greece and its creditors while Federal Reserve policy makers begin a two-day meeting during which they are projected to leave interest rates unchanged. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.3 percent to 2,091.34 at 11:18 a.m. in New York.

Building permits increased 11.8 percent to a 1.28 million annualized pace, the most since August 2007. They were projected to fall to 1.1 million, according to the Bloomberg survey median.

While that’s normally a signal that construction will pick up in coming months, the data came with caveats as applications in the Northeast surged 77.7 percent, the biggest jump since June 2008.

Tax Break

The increase “probably reflects, in part, an effort by builders and developers in New York City to take advantage of tax breaks before they expire in late June,” Omair Sharif, a rates sales strategist at Societe Generale in New York, said in a note to clients. That signals the gain will not be sustained.

Work on single-family properties declined 5.4 percent to a 680,000 rate in May from 719,000 the prior month. Construction of multifamily projects such as condominiums and apartment buildings, which can be volatile, dropped 20.2 percent to an annual rate of 356,000.

Construction decreased in all four regions, led by a 26.5 percent slump in the Northeast.

The starts data were in line with a report Monday showing builder confidence rose in June to a nine-month high. Sentiment increased in all four U.S. regions and the sales outlook was the best since October 2005, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo gauge showed.

April housing data showed industry momentum was spotty at the start of the spring selling period with purchases of new homes increasing while sales of existing homes unexpectedly fell.

Mortgage Rates

Relatively cheap borrowing costs are still supporting homebuyers. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.04 percent in the week ended June 11, according to data from Freddie Mac in McLean, Virginia. That’s below the average 6.06 percent in the last five years of the economic expansion that ended in December 2007, when the housing market boomed.

Further labor-market progress should keep up expectations for gains in housing and the broader economy. Employers added 280,000 jobs in May, the most in five months, after a 221,000 April advance. An increase in the number of people entering the labor force caused the jobless rate to creep up to 5.5 percent from 5.4 percent, which was the lowest since May 2008.

Average hourly earnings reported with the Labor Department’s monthly jobs figures accelerated in May to show a 2.3 percent year-over-year gain, the fastest since August 2013.

Advances in hiring and wages are keeping executives at Mooresville, North Carolina-based Lowe’s Cos. positive about sales prospects.

“We’ve got modestly improving wages, so the income environment is constructive for home improvement,” Chief Financial Officer Robert Hull said at a June 10 conference hosted by Piper Jaffray Cos. “We need a good, stable, employment base, which we’ve got today.”